William Thornton was a gifted amateur artist and architect, who designed the original United States Capitol Building. His painting of Thomas Jefferson is one of at least three copies he executed of Gilbert Stuart’s original portrait of 1805. Thornton borrowed the Stuart from Monticello early in 1815, first making a copy “in Swiss crayons,” which he gave to the Library of Congress in 1816, and later making the painted versions. Thornton intended to model a clay relief from the design, although none is known.1Bush, 76–77.
The original Gilbert Stuart medallion profile that Thornton copied was made at a sitting by the President on June 7, 1805, at Stuart’s studio on F Street near Seventh in Washington. Stuart had painted his first portrait of Jefferson in May 1800 and received payment, but he retained the painting since, as Jefferson wrote in 1819,
He has yet to put the last hand on it . . . When he came to Washington in 1805 he told me he was not satisfied with it, and therefore begged me to sit again, and he drew another which he was to deliver to me instead of the first, but begged permission to keep it until he could get an engraving from it. I soon got after him to sketch me in the medallion form, which he did on paper with crayons. Although a slight thing I gave him another 100 dollars, probably the treble of what he would have asked. This I have; it is a very fine thing, though very perishable.2Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, July 5, 1819; Kimball 1944, 513.
Stuart went over his crayon sketch in gouache, which explains Jefferson’s statement elsewhere that it was “in water colours.”3Ibid., 512; Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Delaplaine, May 30, 1813. Mounted on linen, and later on a modern canvas, and varnished, the portrait has sometimes been mistaken for a painting.4Notably by Kimball 1944, 521 n. 89. The error was discovered by Orlando Campbell in 1956; see Bush, 75.
The most significant aspect of the Stuart portrait (now in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University) is its configuration, “a profile in the medallion stile.”5Kimball 1944, 512. The phrase is Jefferson’s own, and it seems clear from the letter that he requested the pose and format. Triple payment suggests both Jefferson’s satisfaction and perhaps Stuart’s initial reluctance to paint in this style, suggestions found also in Jefferson’s June 18, 1805 letter to the artist: “Mr. Jefferson presents his compliments to Mr. Stewart, and begs leave to send him the enclosed for the trouble he gave him in taking the head à la antique.”6Ibid.
Certainly, the painting is not in Stuart’s accustomed manner. The President’s pleasure in the portrait is still clearer from his letter to the painter nearly one year after the sitting, accompanied by the gift of a gold watch inscribed “Gilbert Stuart Esq. with compliments of Thomas Jefferson 1806:” “Please accept this mark of my esteem. May you wear it with the pleasure of knowing it is presented to you from a friend who appreciated your great talent and the success you had with such a very poor subject.”7Ibid., 521 and 523; Letter, Thomas Jefferson, May 30, 1806. That Jefferson’s letter refers to the medallion profile, and not to the other portrait of 1805, is clear from the fact that the President did not yet possess the latter (known as the Edgehill portrait) and would not receive it for fifteen years, despite his persistent requests.
Nowhere was the identification of the antique style more closely identified with ideals of public morality and political republicanism than in France. In July 1785, when Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as Minister to France, he found time to study contemporary, that is neoclassical, art. He responded to it wholeheartedly. One of his first responsibilities was to supervise the completion of work on the numerous medals that Congress had voted to honor its Revolutionary heroes, medals that were designed and executed in France. Among these, the largest was that of George Washington, and in style it is extremely close to the Stuart medallion profile. Jefferson not only presented the set of medals to the President immediately upon his return to New York (March, 1790), but retained for himself a set of proofs in tin, “in fact more delicate than the medals themselves.”8Commissioned by Congress eight days after Washington forced the British evacuation of Boston in 1776, the Washington medal was designed by Pierre-Simon-Benjamin Duvivier (1730–1819). It was not completed until 1789 because the medalist waited for Houdon to return from America with his life mask of Washington and to create the bust on which the medal was based. See Adams 1976, 112–14, no. 179.
It may have been in emulation of these medals that Jefferson sat for a crayon portrait by Edmé Quenedey (1756–1830) in 1789, the year the Washington medal was completed. It was an oval medallion profile portrait, and was subsequently engraved. Jefferson may have retained the drawing.9Ibid., 147, no. 233. If so, it may have inspired the design of an Indian peace medal with Jefferson’s profile by Robert Scott (active ca. 1800), which was considered so handsome that it was still in occasional use during the Madison administration.10Ibid., 78, no. 130. Finally, in 1804, just six months before he sat to Stuart, Jefferson had a crayon portrait done by Saint-Mémin, with the mechanical aid of a physiognotrace. The design was then engraved. Like all of that artist’s work, it was a pure profile. The drawing is not a medallion, but one copperplate version is enclosed in a circle and another in an oval. The profile became one of the most widely known of all portraits of Jefferson.11Ibid., 75, no. 125.
The significance of the medallion profile type to Jefferson and his contemporaries explains the admiration felt for Stuart’s painting, which might otherwise seem puzzling to us. In this copy, Thornton altered the circular format of the original to an oval, perhaps with the oval Saint-Mémin in mind. He also subtly altered the proportions of Jefferson’s head and made the neck slightly more prominent.
Thornton, who had known Jefferson intimately for over twenty years, may have thus bettered Stuart in capturing this appearance, as recorded by Daniel Webster’s description of Jefferson’s customary posture: “His head . . . is set rather forward on his shoulders; and his neck being long, there is, when he is walking or conversing, a habitual protrusion of it.”12Kimball 1944, 521 n. 92.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.